Science Book a Day Interviews Sarah Wise


Special thanks to Sarah Wise for answering 5 questions about her recently featured book – Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England

Sarah Wise has an MA in Victorian Studies from Birkbeck College, University of London, and is an Associate of the Raphael Samuel History Centre. Her debut,The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave Robbery in 1830s London, was shortlisted for the 2005 Samuel Johnson Prize and won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. Her follow-up, The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum (2008), was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize and was a Book of the Year in the Sunday Telegraph, The Economist and for BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Review programme. She has spoken on BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed, All in the Mind, Woman’s Hour, the Today programme, and Radio 3’s Night Waves. She regularly lectures to societies and at history events. She lives in central London. – Adapted from

Sarah’s Homepage:

#1 – What was the impetus for Inconvenient People?

A trip to the theatre: I went to see a production of the 1938 play Gaslight, by Patrick Hamilton, and the plot hinges on a Victorian husband planning to make his highly strung wife have a breakdown so that he can have her certified insane. I suddenly wondered, while watching it, if that truly had been an easy thing to do in the 19th century – getting your essentially sane wife ‘put away’. So off into the archives I went, and I found a wide range of people against whom this particular plot was carried out.

#2 – Your other books have also been about the Victorian Era. What has drawn you to write about this period?

Although I grew up in the 1970s, I was surrounded by cultural Victoriana – our family home was filled with 19th-century furniture and junk, the Victorian classics were being very well adapted on British TV, my family were all immersed in Victorian novels. All of this triggered my fascination with the larger-than-life individuals who were living in a time that was so very different to the 1970s – it triggered in me a series of questions which I am now trying to answer by researching and writing my books.

#3 – You follow many remarkable stories. How did you decide which stories to keep in the book and which to leave out?

I quickly drew up a long-list of over 30 case histories. My whittling-down process was based on whether there was actually enough surviving documentation to flesh out a story satisfactorily (something that a novelist wouldn’t have to worry about!); and rooting out any duplication (for instance, I didn’t want to include two stories about dipsomania, or two stories about spiritualists, and so on). I also wanted the final selection to reflect the slight preponderance of male over female victims of wrongful incarceration, plus the range of ages of victims, plus the types of behaviour that could be whipped up into an accusation of insanity in the 19th century. I think I’ve ended up with a panorama that accurately reflects the nature of the problem across the whole century.

#4 – You are writing about the beginning of the pathologising of what was called ‘oddness’ or ‘weirdness?. Do you think medicine and psychiatry have changed that much? Can your book tell us anything about modern psychiatry?

I think it shows, depressingly, that the urge to overdiagnose has a long history. Today, I think that urge has shifted (in the UK at least) from incarceration to unnecessary medication. We need, instead, longer-term, more personal, more individualised ways of tackling perfectly normal anxiety and unhappiness, as well as dealing with genuine psychiatric problems. Speaking towards the end of the century, Lord Shaftesbury, the head of the Lunacy Commission, predicted: ‘If ever you have special doctors, they will shut up people by the score,’ while another campaigner complained of ‘the cloven foot of medical arrogance’. In Britain, those specialists did indeed, from 1913, get themselves into policy-making roles, and tens of thousands of people began to be locked up because they were deemed to fall under a newly devised category – ‘moral defectives’. I think this should act as a warning against specialists who are unable or unwilling to probe human behaviour without full reference to its social and cultural context.

#5 – Are you working on a new project/book that you can tell us about?

I’ve just completed a screenplay based on Inconvenient People — any TV/movie big-shots want to get in touch?. . .

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